This post includes a review and some of my highlights from Cal Newport’s book – ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’. I came to read the book as I was starting to think about my latest big work project of trying to launch a subscription website. I’m not a programmer and the work involved in putting this website together seemed daunting and my current main source of income can keep me very busy and doesn’t leave much time to focus on other longer term projects. In addition to my work I am also prone to distraction and procrastinating – I work for myself from home so it would be incredibly easy to do nothing but browse the web and watch box-sets all day. I’m not that bad and have gotten a lot better over the years but still felt I could use so help in the area of focused productivity. So after a lot of research Cal Newport’s book kept coming up and I gave it a go. I finished reading it at the end of last year and some of the ideas I have implemented and some I am still working on. For me meaningful change is relatively gradual rather than a light bulb moment so if I can implement one positive habit at a time then that is great.
I did find some of the ideas in Cal’s book to be really interesting and some were, at first sight, very controversial. One of the main premises of the book is to basically lock yourself away with no human interaction, no distractions, no Internet etc…. So to get your best work done you need extended periods of concentration without distraction. Most people’s response to this is along the lines of ‘it would be impossible to do my job without the internet’ or something to that effect. In addition the typical trend in businesses is to open plan, collaborative working with people sharing ideas and constantly interrupting each other. Cal is also realistic about the implementation of Deep Work so he doesn’t expect us all to disappear off the grid for 6 months. However, for most of us it would be possible to ignore emails for 2 hours a day, for example. A Tim Ferris trick is to add an auto-responder such as ‘I read and respond to emails between 4pm and 5pm each day …..’ to help manage the sender’s expectations. This is an idea I like but I’m yet to use the auto responder – instead I just ignore emails for a few hours and so far there haven’t been any catastrophes!
Here are a few of my highlights from Cal’s book Deep Work:
- Focus on a small number of wildly important / ambitious goals rather than simply trying to do more.
- Focus on improving lead measure rather than the end result. Cal Newport’s example, as writer of academic papers, was tracking deep work hours per day rather than focusing on the number of papers he wrote per year. Focusing initially on the number of papers lacks influence, whereas tracking hours per day is immediately implementable and ultimately has a direct impact on the number of papers written in a year.
- Weekly reviews – Cal looked back at his records of hours worked, progress made, etc…. each week and therefore built up an understanding of what made a good week and what made a bad week.
- Make sure you have time scheduled to relax, ideally the same time each day, otherwise you’re robbing your attention centres of the uninterrupted rest they need. So since reading the book I no longer work after dinner in the evening. If I feel busy or have things to do I simply attack them first thing the next morning – I typically get up around 7am which gives me around 2 hours before most people are online so I don’t need to interrupt my evenings with responding to after hours emails and other fairly trivial things.
- Its ok to be bored. These days most of us carry around smart phones which have infinite possibilities when it comes to distracting us. So typically when we’re on our own in a restaurant waiting for someone to arrive, or in a long queue somewhere we typically reach for our phones. This accustoms our brains to ‘on-demand distractions’ and makes it hard to resist checking Instagram / checking emails / reading the sports news etc….. even at times when we want to concentrate on other things. So practise NOT looking at your smart phone when waiting 5 minutes somewhere and just be bored for a moment to avoid constantly distracting yourself
- Schedule internet use. This point follows on from the point above but does take some discipline. Many of us need the internet for work when researching, emailing etc…. But it also provides a significant distraction and many of us also need to concentrate and get into projects that don’t need the internet for extended periods. For example in my work I have to put together client presentations and complicated property development cash flows that need concentration to pull together and don’t require me to be online. So when working on these I’ll schedule 2 hours offline – emails can wait.
- Give some thought to your leisure time. So when it comes to relaxing don’t just do whatever grabs your attention at the time but plan something you’ll enjoy / find interesting.
For practical productivity ideas I’d certainly recommend giving Deep Work and read. In addition I think that and David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity’ is a very good partner to Deep Work. Both give you practical measures you can implement into your daily routine for real practical benefits. I think all the new tech tools, apps and websites actually provide more distraction than useful tools so these help filter out what is useful and what is mere distraction.
Here are some links to Amazon for Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Work’ and ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen if you want to check them out. If you sometimes struggle with distraction or procrastination or are drowning in emails I’d recommend doing so.